In the 16th century it was customary for royal ladies and members of the nobility to have their own prayer books. They were commonly referred to as a book of hours. The quality and opulence of these manuscripts was dependant on the rank and wealth of the owner. A book of hours owned by a person of quality would be sumptuously illuminated and therefore would, in some cases be considered a very desirable work of art.
These devotional works enabled people other than members of the clergy to pray and offer devotions everyday. It was not necessary for all of the prayers written in the book to be offered daily, however it did provide a structured framework for those who wished to augment their attendance at church services or Mass with private prayers in their own chambers.
Queen Anne Boleyn owned three such richly decorated manuscripts. Two of these are preserved and on display within Anne’s childhood home at Hever Castle in Kent. The other is housed within the British Library in London and contains about 50 biblical illustrations and was probably produced in Bruges in or around the late 15th or early 16th century.
It was not unusual in Tudor times for these books to contain hand written notes or signatures, but the dialogue exchanged between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in Anne’s book of hours gives us a fascinating and revealing snap shot into the couple’s strength of feeling for each other. It allows us a glimpse of Henry’s longing and eagerness to have his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled in order that he could marry Anne.
The page that contains Henry’s part of the exchange is a picture of the Flayed Christ. The inference is that although Henry is not suffering in his body he is in real pain because he has so far been unable to obtain an annulment from Rome that will allow him and Anne to marry. Henry writes in French
‘If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall hardly be forgotten, for I am yours. Henry R. forever.’
His meaning is clear if you pray for me with the same constancy as I love you then I will be forever in your thoughts. Then he goes on to promise he will be Anne’s forever.
Anne’s is equally thoughtful and transparent in her choice of page. She chooses an image of the Annunciation. In the image Archangel Gabrielle has come in visitation to the Virgin Mary to tell her she will give birth to a son. Her inscription reads as below and the message is unmistakeable.
‘By daily proof you shall me find to be to you both loving and kind’
She is promising Henry that by her daily actions he will experience how she will love and care for him. More importantly though she is communicating the message that she will deliver Henry from his anxieties about the succession by bearing him the son and heir he so desperately wants and feels he needs to secure the future of England.
For all the heartbreak and tragedy that followed in the subsequent years it is sometimes easy to forget that these two people were once deeply in love and completely devoted to one another.
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